Waikiki's Extreme Makeover

Hawaii’s most famous beach is undergoing a historic transformation. What do agents need to know?

By: Marty Wentzel

It’s time to bid aloha to the old way of selling Waikiki. The iconic two-square-mile stretch of South Oahu has dramatically reinvented itself. And, industry officials across the board are urging travel agents to set aside old tools for promoting Waikiki and begin again. Simply put, the best way to pitch Waikiki is a new way.

The changes already in place in Waikiki and those in the works are more than just a breath of fresh air. Think of them as restorative trade winds, filling the destination with unprecedented energy and sales appeal. Once- narrow streets, crowded sidewalks and tall concrete slabs are giving way to more palms, parks and ocean views, evoking a Hawaiian sense of place from one end of the strip to the other. Dog-eared accommodations are getting dolled up, and Waikiki Beach is enhancing its international cachet thanks to newer, wider strands of sand.

Improvements to the beach and more hotels with beach access are two huge positives, according to agents responding to a TravelAge West survey on selling Waikiki. Even longtime specialists whose clients return year after year are enthusiastic about having something new to sell. Another enhancement seen as key: increased dining options in an area known for overcrowded restaurants and long wait times.

Eager to tutor travel agents about Waikiki’s turning tide, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB) is launching a major marketing campaign to agents this spring, followed by a consumer campaign in the fall. As agents map out an agenda, they’ll do well to take a cue from HVCB’s strategic marketing plan for Waikiki 2007-2009.

“Waikiki is not a typical beach vacation, nor is it an urban adventure,” it states. “Waikiki is what happens when the modern world meets the ancient spirit, to reinvent and influence each other.”

HVCB senior vice president of marketing Jay Talwar adds: “Waikiki is such a strong brand that everyone has an image of it, whether it’s accurate or not. We’re asking people to look at Waikiki again, because it’s a whole new destination.”

According to our survey responses, agents have been keeping up to date on the changes to Waikiki primarily through magazine articles, followed by the Oahu Visitors Bureau Web site. The OVB has created a new Waikiki-specific training module for HVCB’s Hawaii Destination Specialist Web site. It’s also providing Waikiki Webinar presentations to wholesaler partners.

“Given the depth of Waikiki’s new personality, character, product and value, agents can’t afford not to take a closer look at it with a new perspective,” said OVB travel industry sales director Stacey Alford. “In today’s environment where the consumer expects you to know more than they do, agents must speak to Waikiki’s newness from an insider perspective.”

So, what do agents need to know to have that inside line? For starters, keep in mind that additional news about Waikiki is breaking faster than you can say “Kalakaua Avenue.” In the meantime, here’s a look at projects that are currently changing Waikiki and the way agents sell it.

Major Waikiki Projects

Open, airy and pedestrian-friendly, Beach Walk, Outrigger Enterprises’ $535 million eight-acre master-planned Waikiki oasis encompasses five resorts and 47 dining and retail tenants. Several hotels, stores and restaurants are up and running, with more on the way over the next three months.

“We have been conducting literally hundreds of site inspections of our new products in Waikiki,” said Rob Solomon, Outrigger’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We have completed new product training for hundreds of reservations agents at call centers for every major Hawaii wholesaler, and for those at our own call center. We’re offering great rates for agents coming to Waikiki on their own, and we’re constantly updating sales tools and fact sheets with the newest information.”

Here’s an incentive for a quick trip to Waikiki: From March 7-11, Waikiki Beach Walk is celebrating its grand opening with ongoing arts, crafts and entertainment in the area’s open-air plaza.

Embassy Suites-Waikiki Beach Walk debuted in December as the brand’s first all-leisure property and Hawaii’s first all-new all-suite hotel. Two towers in 21 stories feature one- and two-bedroom units, many with stunning ocean views. Pitch this property to couples, families, friends and business travelers. It’s part of the Hilton family, so Unlimited Budget loyalty program members earn points by booking clients at HiltonTravelAgent.com.

“This online tool developed solely for agents provides seamless booking capabilities and a fast weekly commission payment schedule,” said Embassy Suites brand marketing vice president John Lee.

Outrigger Reef on the Beach remains open during its $100 million makeover, but wait to send clients here until at least May, when the first renovated rooms including significantly enlarged oceanfront suites become available. When completed in 2008, the hotel will have 631 units and such new amenities as whirlpool baths in one-bedroom oceanfront suites, VIP pool service, free wireless Internet access, personalized sit-down check-in and a signature restaurant by the pool.

Ohana Islander, currently a 280-room budget property, will likely be redeveloped into a boutique hotel this year. Parent company Outrigger hopes to announce the details within the next two months, said Solomon. Through May 31, clients can stay there for $99 per night including two coupons to Starbucks. Wyndham Waikiki Beach Walk, open since Nov. 1, is the $54 million redo of the former Ohana Reef Towers hotel. The 195-unit property lavishes guests with amenities, but clients can only stay there if they belong to Wyndham’s vacation ownership program.

Trump International Hotel and Tower-Waikiki Beach Walk, like all of The Donald’s projects, is expected to make a splash. When completed in fall 2009, the five-star 464-unit 350-foot hotel-condominium tower will mark the final stage of Waikiki Beach Walk. It promises luxuries like cabanas with tropical landscaping and a private fitness center and spa. Reserve this property for VIPs, high-spenders and clients who want a piece of the action.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts just announced a $400 million master plan to renovate and rebrand its four Waikiki properties.

“This transformation will help travel agents send new customers to Waikiki and give them a choice of deluxe, upscale, upper-upscale and luxury experiences,” said Cheryl Williams, Starwood Hawaii’s regional sales and marketing vice president. “Agents can stay on top of our news by signing up for our planned education and awareness activities, including fams.”

Sheraton Waikiki is currently wrapping up a two-year guestroom renovation of its 1,400 rooms. By 2009, expect a new porte cochere, lobby and check-in area, upgrades to the retail area and public spaces and more beachfront food and beverage offerings. Plans call for the creation of a world-class fantasy pool and unique cultural programs like a Beach Boy and Girl program for children. The Royal Hawaiian, the 1927 Pink Palace, is eyeing 2008 for its revival, beginning with an enhanced entrance, lobby and retail areas. In the main building, clients will notice upgrades to 350 guestrooms; improvements to the pool deck and beach; expansion of the spa; and updates to the hotel’s Surf Room restaurant, Monarch Room and Mai Tai Bar.

Sheraton Moana-Surfrider, built in 1901, is the oldest hotel in Waikiki. The property will be rebranded as a Westin in June. Work has started on renovations to 430 Surfrider Tower rooms, which will feature Westin Heavenly beds and flat-screen televisions, while a 15,000-square-foot spa moves into the Tower Wing. June ushers in accommodation and restaurant upgrades in the historic Banyan Wing and the creation of a Westin Kids Club and Beach Club.

Sheraton Princess Kaiulani’s future is uncertain, but whatever happens will begin in 2009. According to officials, Starwood might reconstruct the hotel, demolishing the Princess Wing, Kaiulani Wing and pool area to make way for a new 240 two-bedroom unit timeshare tower. And, the existing Ainahau Tower will undergo its own major renovations.

Hilton Hawaiian Village is spending $250 million to build the 38-story Grand Waikikian timeshare tower; upgrade its Rainbow Tower loading dock, Village Green event venue and Tapa Tower rooms; and rejuvenate the Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, all by the end of 2008.

“When completed, the lagoon will be one of the largest ocean-water swimming spots in a resort destination,” said Hilton Hawaii sales and marketing vice president Jon Conching.

Agents logging on to HiltonHawaiiUniversity.com, a Web-based tutorial, can study up on the 22-acre resort and Waikiki as a whole.

Part of Outrigger Enterprises, Ohana Hotels and Resorts, has been repositioned as a mid-market leisure product. This year’s renovations are targeting the main tower of Ohana Waikiki Malia and the recently acquired Waikiki Beachcomber. Agents should take advantage of such new sales tools as the Ohana Waikiki Connection, giving guests free amenities like unlimited rides aboard the Waikiki Trolley; and the Hookipa Host program, where local consultants share insider tips for seeing the real Hawaii.

The Ilikai’s renovation, starting in 2007, is adding a full-service spa and injecting 343 rooms with a bold and modern design.

“One of my objectives is to further strengthen relationships with our industry partners while uncovering new relationships,” said sales and marketing director Maydene Simmons.

Since it’s on the edge of Waikiki near the Hawaii Convention Center and downtown, keep the Ilikai in mind for business and group markets alongside leisure travelers.

Waikiki Parc, fresh from a top-to-bottom renovation, is adopting a chic attitude to reel in the 30- to 50-year-old traveler. Promising not just a hotel but an experience, the 297-room property is promoting its ideal location adjacent to Waikiki Beach Walk and the beach. Although clients get a reduced rate of $150 per night for a deluxe room through May 31, food-lovers should wait to visit until the hotel’s unveiling of Nobu Waikiki, brainchild of world-famous chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.

Aqua Hotels & Resorts, the condotel champ, has spent $26 million upgrading its Waikiki properties, with $8 million earmarked for this year.

“Aqua will continue to be part of Waikiki’s rejuvenation throughout 2007 by renovating and rebranding at least three hotels,” said Aqua marketing vice president Beth Churchill.

On the travel specialist portion of its Web site, take note of such new initiatives as printable property brochures for clients. Now is a good time to book an Aqua fam, which comes with a meal and beach backpack, and provides limo service between its 10 Waikiki properties for fams of six agents or more.

Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, scheduled for a mid-2007 completion of its $84 million reconstruction, features Hawaii’s largest concentration of luxury flagship retailers. At the same time, its reinvention pays tribute to island heritage, from the uniquely Hawaiian products at its Hilo Hattie’s flagship store, to the ethnobotanical gardens and cultural classes in its Royal Grove, one of the largest open spaces in Waikiki.

“The center is the only one of its kind to offer four levels and three city blocks of shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance from hotels,” said center spokeswoman Rosalind Schurgin. “We’ll make sure mainland travel agents get that message through e-mails, advertising, collateral and industry partnerships.”

Beach widening began in late 2006, when state workers pumped sand off the ocean floor a half-mile out to sea, then spread it out on eroded Kuhio Beach, part of Waikiki’s famous strand. State officials are high-fiving each other over the positive results and the relatively low $475,000 price tag. Plus, beach widening was a very strong positive to agents, according to our survey.

“Work on the beach will most affect my bookings,” said a typical respondent, “since the beach is the main reason people go to Hawaii in the first place.”

More Than Just Construction

In addition to all the building sites and renovations going on, Waikiki is solidifying its customer base, and agents are well advised to get up to speed on Waikiki’s current vibe. The HVCB’s Talwar recommends tapping Gen-X and younger Boomer consumers with above-average incomes.

“There’s an attitude among the current generation that travel is a part of their lifestyle,” he said. “Waikiki is a fusion beach resort at once classic and contemporary, focusing on entertainment, cuisine, shopping and activities, all of which are great selling points for agents to pitch.”

Other potential Waikiki clients are travelers who enjoy city breaks; people with an interest in arts, culture and fashion; travelers drawn toward spontaneity and variety; those eager for pampering; clients who like sampling different cultures; and visitors seeking a balance between relaxation and excitement.

From online information to fam trips, supplier programs stand ready to help travel agents familiarize themselves with the nuts and bolts of Waikiki. But, said Alford, they must act fast.

“Agents need to take a proactive role in exhausting opportunities to get reacquainted with Waikiki, as if it were a brand-new destination,” she said. “Agents with a quest to specialize in Waikiki can capitalize on the timing and momentum of this great success story.”

Will selling the new Waikiki increase the number of success stories for agents? That remains to be seen. The majority of agents responding to the TravelAge West survey said their clients were interested in “family travel,” and in seeing Waikiki become “more Hawaiian.” More than one expressed concern that the “upscale” transformation of Waikiki would leave out those clients with moderate budgets.

On the other hand, the agents also indicated that by a large percentage, clients who visit Waikiki have every intention of returning. If all goes as planned, the new Waikiki will only increase those positive client-satisfaction numbers.

“If all this work is done in the name of upgrading, then fine. In fact, great!” said one agent in our survey. “If it means high density, overcrowding and more expensive parking, then I think everyone will be against it. Any improvements of amenities, accommodations and services for the visitor will only enhance the desire and beauty of Waikiki.”


Hawaii wholesalers weigh in with tips for selling Waikiki.

Amy Terada, vice president of marketing, Pleasant Holidays: “Agents should look in their local markets for opportunities that tie into Waikiki. For instance, Waikiki features a long list of new shops and restaurants. Agents may have a similar establishment in their own backyard and a joint promotion when launched properly and to the right target market could result in new business.”

Wil Eichorn, product manager, All About Hawaii: “Teaming with OVB, we are promoting the island as a whole, packaging Waikiki hotels with Oahu activities. With its new product, Waikiki will attract curious repeat visitors and upper-end clients, but agents should remember that certain segments of travelers still prefer the laid-back neighbor island experience of Kauai, Maui and the Big Island.”

Sandy Babin, vice president of marketing, Apple Vacations: “As travel agents promote multi-island packages, they should remind their clients that extra days in Waikiki can rekindle their love of the area. Waikiki has found a way to take a standard destination and make it upscale and cosmopolitan without losing any of the old Hawaii tradition and spirit of aloha.”

Ron Letterman, president, Classic Vacations: “Waikiki isn’t a tropical resort. We’ve always billed it as a city resort, and it’s good to pitch it to clients who are really interested in lots of activities and high-end shopping. You’d have to travel far and wide to find the same collection of high-end stores as they have in Waikiki.”